Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion, May-5-6

May 01, 1998

Fifteen of America's preeminent brain scientists, most supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), will present the latest findings about emotion at the Library of Congress (LOC) in early May.

"Never before has such a critical mass of expertise on emotion been assembled to spotlight progress in this emerging field," said NIMH director Steven E. Hyman, M.D., who will co-chair the symposium with Librarian of Congress James Billington, Ph.D.

"Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion," May 5-6, will also feature a keynote address by Tipper Gore, mental health policy advisor to the president. Cosponsored by the LOC, NIMH and the Charles A. Dana Foundation, the event is free and open to the public.

"Not very long ago, emotion was thought to be the exclusive province of poets," said Hyman, who will also moderate sessions at the event. "Now, a new science of emotion is discovering pathways in our brains that create powerful emotional memories. Normally these protect us against repeating harmful encounters and guide us to what's good. But science is just now beginning to understand how emotional memories can also become prisons when hijacked by anxiety or trauma."

Among presentations at the symposium will be new information about how feelings imprint memory, why early nurturance is so important, and about the archaeology of disturbed affect in trauma, panic, mania, depression and schizophrenia. Just within the past year, for example there have been new findings about how an enriched environment can enhance memory circuits in the hippocampus by forming new neurons. There will also be an update on the plight of emotionally abused and neglected Romanian orphans, who are marked by a neurochemical scar: excess stress hormones. A similar phenomenon occurs in laboratory animals that undergo early maternal deprivation.

"The environment impacts the brain at a molecular level," explained Hyman. "It produces biochemical changes that turn genes on and off inside brain cells, altering the cells' structure and activity. These physical changes caused by experience are the basis of all long-term memory. Thus, the environment's effect on gene expression during critical periods in early development sculpts the brain, with lifelong consequences for the emotional health of the individual -- for good or ill."

The symposium will be held at the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington D.C.

NIH/National Institute of Mental Health

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